TRENTON, N.J. In light of food poisoning outbreaks involving spinach and lettuce, the government and the produce industry are scrambling to make leafy greens safer before the spring planting season.
New guidelines from the industry are due in April on how to prevent contamination throughout the food chain, from before greens are planted until they reach the dinner table.
Members of Congress are asking federal agencies to report on what went wrong and how to fix the problem. Some lawmakers want to replace the patchwork system of federal food regulation with a single agency in charge of what people eat.
States are active, too. In California, where most of the nation's green leafy vegetables are grown, farmers are poised to approve new labeling by March for farms that follow stricter practices for raising greens.
In New Jersey, where small family farms were hurt by a nationwide spinach ban right at the start of September's harvest, the state has set up a task force to improve produce safety.
"This whole issue has gathered significant momentum in light of the recent outbreaks," said Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer for food safety at the Food and Drug Administration.
The spinach outbreak killed three people and sickened more than 200. An E. coli outbreak linked to lettuce sickened dozens of people who ate at East Coast Taco Bell outlets and Midwest Taco John's restaurants in November and December.
Two salmonella outbreaks blamed on tomatoes made about 400 people sick in October and November.
The number of foodborne illness outbreaks generally has declined over the past decade. Still, greens are especially vulnerable to outbreaks because they tend to be eaten raw - proper cooking kills E. coli and other bugs - and grow close to soil, which may hold manure-based fertilizer that can contaminate the produce.
Many states probably will attempt improvements before the spring planting season, said Bob Ehart, spokesman for the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.
"The states that we've had conversations with are all very concerned about the issue and are looking at it," Ehart said.
Since September, two produce industry groups that together represent thousands of U.S. growers, processors, distributors, restaurants and supermarkets have worked to hasten revised guidelines for preventing contamination of leafy greens.
The goal is to tell farmers, before spring planting, and then consumers about the new safety guidelines.